Every entrepreneur has to try to predict the future: customer trends, market shifts, new competition... the day you stop looking forward is the day your business starts losing ground.
But what if your job requires, hundreds of times every year, needing to predict the future?
That's what happens in the concert promotion business. Sometimes you bet a new artist will draw fans. Sometimes you bet an established artist will still draw fans.
And sometimes you simply bet that what you offer say, next Friday, will be more appealing than all the other entertainment options available that night.
Sound incredibly challenging? It is, but the folks at New York City's iconic Webster Hall do it incredibly well -- so well, in fact, that Webster Hall recently won Pollstar's Nightclub of the Year award.
Since I've always been fascinated by the concert promotion business (go to a lot of concerts and it's natural to wonder how the industry actually works), I talked to Heath Miller, VP and talent buyer for Webster Hall.
Heath started booking bands when he was a teenager, managed bands, ran his own company... and since becoming the buyer for its Grand Ballroom has moved Webster Hall from #11 on the Pollstar ticket sales charts to #1 in NYC and #3 worldwide.
(Not too shabby.)
Natural first question: what goes into deciding whether or not to book an act?
There are a number of ways. One example is a new band we booked for much later this year; unfortunately I can't reveal who it is at this time.
No one has even heard their music. Their agent carried it, in person, for me to listen to because he couldn't let it leave his hands. From a public perspective the band doesn't exist, the music doesn't exist... but it's a strong lineup of members from bands that matter.
Because of that, we know the label will get behind them. We know there will be plenty of PR. They're coordinating with TV, they'll do our NY show after a major TV appearance... it will be a huge roll-out.
Even before I heard the music, just knowing what I knew about the band, I sent an aggressive offer. Hearing the music only confirmed that decision.
What about bands that do have some history?
With most bands we can look at stats. Is the band on an upward trajectory that is big enough to play the bigger room... are they ramping up...?
Keep in mind I'm typically booking for six months to ten months out, so we're basically evaluating a trend line. Right now we're confirming for November, December, and January.
I have to believe in the agent, believe in the marketing, believe in the quality of the band's music and live performance, etc. We're a very aggressive market in NY. We can't play it safe.
We have to put our money where our mouth is.
Next natural question: How do you make money?
The standard deal is either a guarantee, or a guarantee plus a percentage after minimal expenses. In simple terms the artist can get a guaranteed fee, or they can get a lower guarantee and X percent of the gate after costs.
What that boils down to is we keep a percentage of ticket sales and the artist gets the lion's share.
It's fairly rare that an artist will play for a percentage without a guarantee; typically that happens when an artist doesn't have a history and wants us to take a chance on them... or, on the flip side, with an artist who knows they will sell out.
We did three nights last year with a band and they said, "Hey, let's get rid of the guarantee. We want more of the gross." They were right. All three shows sold out in a second.
So how does it work when a huge band plays Webster Hall? I was there for Metallica's show last year. (I wrote about it here.)
Metallica took a loss on playing that show. They just wanted to do a cool show at Webster Hall for their fans, one that would help a great charity.
For us, working with a band like Metallica is beyond a win. If you're a promoter you would normally assume that if you ever got to work with them it would be for an arena show, not for a venue with 1,500 people.... and not one where you don't have to argue over dollars and cents.
That show was amazing for us to be a part of.
Let's talk about predicting the future. With a popular act, the booking decision is basically math: can you make some level of profit after paying their fee. Where it gets a lot harder is when you can't know how well an act will draw.
We look at whether the band's fan base is growing. We look at social metrics. We listen to the music; sometimes it's so goody know the band will get big. You have to trust your taste.
I also get input from people I respect. I listen to agents that have a great ear, ones that work with the right talent and teams. Certain labels do a great job promoting their acts. Some do a good job.
Some don't do a good job.
You have to know which labels will not just work hard to help promote the band, but which labels will really work to leverage the band's appearance at Webster Hall. When you come to NYC, you shouldn't treat it as just playing any other show. The stakes are much higher.
Even with all the metrics and analysis, you still have to be sweating sometimes.
Depending on the style of artist, sales patterns can be all over the place. Some shows are late sells. Half the tickets will sell the week of the show. Sometimes as much as 30% of the tickets may sell in the last day or two.
That's definitely nerve wracking.
Plus we're impacted by lots of other factors. We're not just competing with concerts, we're competing with life: sports, movies, TV, dates... It's a very real thing that a guy will ask a girl out for a first date and won't want that first date to be a concert, and he'll bail on the show. That's especially true with a free or sponsored event, one with a low ticket price -- the "show up" ratio can be much lower. The higher the ticket price, the lower the no-show rate.
But if you sold the ticket already, do you care that much about no-shows?
We do. Partly it's perception; a full house creates a better experience for the audience and the band. But it's also a revenue issue; concession money can be a significant source of revenue. In some scenarios, we may be hoping to make the bulk of our money on beer and alcohol sales.
So obviously you lose money on certain shows.
Sure. Sometimes that's even intentional. If we really believe in an artist and want to be in business with them on a long-term basis, in some scenarios it's worth losing money booking them in our smallest room if it helps us build the relationship and the artist in our market. I'd rather lose $500 today if that helps us make $20,000 over the lifetime of an artist.
Sometimes we say, "I'm going to lose money, but I believe in you... and down the road we will make money."
You book so many shows a year -- last year you put on over 150 shows in your main room alone -- that some of them must be relatively last-minute.
Our size makes us very nimble. I've banged out deals at a bar at midnight.
Because we're independent and not part of a larger network, we can operate quickly. We don't have a lot of red tape. We're a great mousetrap.
Do the changes in the music business make your job easier, or harder?
The process of how this works has changed so much in the past 10 to 15 years. It used to be a band put out a record and then toured to support that record.
Now the record supports the tour. That's great for us, because I know bands will release a record and tour on that record. To gain new fans, to build their audience, to make money... they have to tour. Plus there are more bands touring, and more bands period, than ever before.
And now you don't have to have a budget to spread the word about your music. You just need to get the right people to hear it and spread the word. Some artists have no team behind them, and haven't even put out a record.
So we advertised the show, it sold out instantly, the second show sold out, and eight months later we brought him back and he sold out the main room on a Monday night.
We just took a leap of faith. And we were way early. He wouldn't even come over right away because they weren't sure he could support a whole tour.
You're running a business, but there's also personal gratification involved: You're playing a part in helping people succeed.
In NY, where we're so press heavy, ours can be the show that launches an artist's career. That's awesome.
Lindsey Stirling is a good example. A friend was operating as her agent and she had never played a ticketed concert before; she had only done appearances. An intern turned me on to her and I decided to take a shot.
We booked her in our smallest room and it sold out in a second. I thought, "All right, this is real."
We've done more shows with her, she's sold them out... and now she's headlined Central Park and she has the same manager as John Legend. Playing here helped launch her as a touring artist.
As a violinist she's definitely not a traditional musician, so we took a medium-sized risk, but it really worked and really paid off... and she's extremely nice and we've developed a relationship with her. That's definitely a fun part of my job.
When we won Nightclub of the Year I was in the lobby of the hotel and saw Ashley, who people know professionally as Halsey. We talked for a few minutes. She grew up nearby, did two shows here, they sold out right away... and the next time she played NYC was headlining Madison Square Garden.
Every time I see her I remember being there from the beginning. Even some of the people who work with her now are people I knew back then because we had similar social circles.
So yes, it is more than a business.
Plus I love what we do. When you go to a concert, even if you walk in the door not feeling so good... when you leave, you feel amazing.
What we do really is more than just business.